My pedagogical approach emphasizes literacy as a matter of decoding and access, focusing on identifying what constitutes successful writing in a given context, and how those views of writing are connected to, different from, and sometimes in conflict with other ways of writing that students might have experienced. Throughout class, I help students learn the underlying expectations for “good academic writing” and to frame those expectations not as replacements for literacies students bring, but as additions to ever-expanding repertoires.
The basis of these understandings comes from the way I ask students to read. All of my courses begin with Mike Bunn’s “How to Read like a Writer,” with students learning a method for decoding readings and seeing every line as a matter of choice, based on goals and audiences. Beginning with a brief narrative assumes a different relationship with the audience than beginning with statistics, or a theoretical statement drawing on Judith Butler. Each choice also presents writers as, respectively, a storyteller, a quantitative analyst, or a philosophically-inclined intellectual, and each choice could appeal to potential audiences differently; by reading like writers, students learn to associate choices with given contexts and effects. Scientific reviews of literature almost never begin with narratives, for reasons related to their specific goals and expectations. Research-based arguments are equally likely to begin with narratives or statistics, but the choice will predict a good deal about the author’s goals and approach to the rest of the text. At times, these choices overlap with the sense of how to engage in intelligent discourse that students bring from high school, home contexts, or their work experiences; other times they contrast sharply. For students who are apprenticing to the new discourses of the university, particularly those who come from social contexts where language is used differently, analyzing the ways choices are related to immediate context can provide access to the otherwise hidden expectations of academic writing.
Reading like a writer is thus a matter of teaching students how to decode expectations in new contexts, making more adaptable learners. Reading this way, students identify the main rhetorical moves texts make, seeing how authors lead readers along step by step. In a University of Michigan professional writing course, students learn forms of particular genres by identifying, for example, what tends to happen first in a funding proposal, what follows, how words are arranged typographically, and what constitutes good evidence to support the overall discussion. The importance of context is especially emphasized in peer review, where I ask students to look at their respective genres contrastively. Such practices encourage students to see that, for instance, a funding proposal for a research scientist is quite different from one submitted in a corporate structure and those differences are based on distinct goals, audiences, and contexts. So, reading to write gives students the ability to create context-specific genre models, a practice allowing them to learn to decode expectations in future situations.
However, one of the most challenging aspects of writing for many students (especially those from under-represented backgrounds) is to identify a tone that will seem contextually-appropriate for an academic audience. So, I also provide linguistically-informed tools to help students analyze the ways texts work at the sentence-level. In an early session of FYW at the University of Michigan, for instance, students identify how choices related to incorporating other voices or perspectives create a more or less academic tone. Students compare Elwood Reid’s “My Body, My Weapon, My Shame” and Laura Gottesdiener’s “Life inside America’s Oil Boom,” identifying sentence-level choices that position each text differently. Both are gripingly violent, but through analysis, students realize that Reid never draws on outside sources or uses words that accommodate other views, while a range of choices in Gottesdiener’s text allow other voices to appear. While many students reflect that they prefer Reid’s text because of its forceful tone, they also see that this approach clashes with many of the goals of academic writing. Thus, students learn to identify linguistic choices that convey meaning and tone in subtle ways, choices they can deploy in their own writing if their goal is to produce a similar tone.
Ultimately, framing academic writing as a matter of adding choices to their growing repertoires helps students see themselves as developing the ability to write to many communities, both academic and non. If I have been successful in one aspect of my teaching, I hope it is this one, providing students access to privileged discourses, while keeping an alive those they bring with them.